Nuclear Power. It’s often touted as a low-carbon energy source and an important part of stemming climate change. Today, nuclear plants provide 20% of U.S. power generation. But the nation’s nuclear fleet is aging and nuclear plants around the country are slated to close in the coming years. In an effort to keep them running, some in the Trump administration are pushing to reduce safety regulations for nuclear reactors.
Our guest on our Trump on Earth podcast is Steve Clemmer, director of energy research and analysis for the non-profit Union of Concerned Scientists. He authored a report last year called, The Nuclear Dilemma. UCS has been a nuclear safety watchdog for more than 40 years and a leading advocate of renewable energy. But at the same time, Clemmer says, they’ve long recognized that nuclear power is an important source of low carbon electricity for the country.
“The premature retirement of these plants could setback national efforts to reduce emissions,” he says. “And the scope and impact of climate change really demands that we consider all low carbon options including nuclear power.”
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Clemmer’s report found that about a third of the existing nuclear fleet in the United States was either uneconomic or slated to close over the next decade. And Clemmer is concerned with what would replace them.
“We did some modeling that found that if those plants did shut down they would be primarily replaced with natural gas which could cause carbon emissions to rise at a time when we really need to be achieving deep cuts in emissions to limit the worst impacts of climate change,” Clemmer says.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission recently issued new rules that would reduce safety inspections and weaken safety standards for nuclear plants. The changes include reducing inspections from once every two years to once every three years. The new rules would also allow plant owners to essentially remove any safety violations that they have immediately from their record instead of keeping them on the books for a year or more which is current practice.
“That could be a hindrance to the NRC to identify more widespread safety concerns and patterns that the industry is facing,” Clemmer warns. “We have reactors that are approaching a 60 year operating lifetime (starting around 2030) and the equipment needs to be replaced. That’s not only a safety issue but it’s also an economic issue because it’s very expensive to replace those. So we think at a time when the fleet’s aging, these proposals by the NRC really take us in the wrong direction and pose a threat to public safety.”
Meanwhile, there are two new reactors being built in the U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry visited the site in Georgia last March announcing $3.7 billion in new loan guarantees to support the completion of the project. He called the expansion of nuclear energy “the real” Green New Deal, mocking the legislative effort from Democrats to combat climate change. And the way Secretary Perry talks about it, there are a lot more new nuclear reactors on the way.
“Building new reactors is really expensive,” Clemmer says. “Energy efficiency is cheaper so it doesn’t really make sense from an economic standpoint to be building new reactors. But in terms of trying to meet our climate goals of reducing emissions essentially to zero by mid century, nuclear power may need to play a role.”
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